After what feels like a lifetime, the Warriors finally begin the second round on Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies. While these teams stayed relatively stable in terms of personnel over the last few years, they have never faced one another in a playoff series.
As has been the case for years now, the Grizzlies get excellent play on the interior. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have been one of the best big man combinations in the league the last few seasons and are one of the few PF/C pairs to provide scoring, rebounding and defense. What makes Memphis really special is that they have quality depth in the form of Kosta Koufos. Koufos, a former Ohio State star prospect, had a somewhat down year by his standards but can still do a nice job on the boards (#20 in Defensive Rebound Rate, tied with Randolph) and as a rim protector replacing Gasol.
That inside play feeds into one of the league’s best defenses. Memphis finished the regular season fourth in Defensive Efficiency (how many points a team allows per 100 possessions, which adjusts for pace- the Warriors were #1) and the Grizzlies have been in the top ten each of the last five seasons. Tony Allen can make a great case for being the best perimeter defender in the league, partially because he is one of the few that can defend all three perimeter positions (PG, SG, SF) at an elite level. When Mike Conley can play, Memphis has a lineup where all five players are quality defenders with enough versatility to put pressure on a wide variety of opponents. Courtney Lee could end up playing a sizeable role in this series since Jeff Green could have trouble with Golden State’s SF defenders.
One other interesting strength: in clutch situations (last five minutes of a game and within five points) this season, the Grizzlies were the fifth-best team in the league, outscoring their opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions. That shows the potency of their starting lineup and how little the Warriors want to battle with them down the stretch even though the Dubs were #1 in that category.
They cannot and do not shoot. Even adjusting for pace, the Grizzlies shot the second-least three pointers in the entire league in 2014-15 and made just 33.9% of them. For the sake of comparison, the Warriors attempted ten more threes per game and shot almost six percent better from distance.
Their other major weakness comes in terms of shot creation. Other than Conley, Memphis has very few players who can create quality shots for themselves and others. The bigs can do well but Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Jeff Green and Vince Carter have trouble in this realm, making the Grizzlies much easier to defend. Perimeter players with shaky jump shots and limited offensive games allow an opponent to fixate on the smaller positive elements. In this series, that means clogging the interior and helping differently since they have less players that can cause real damage.
Strangely, the Grizzlies did not rebound well this season despite relatively healthy campaigns from Gasol and Randolph. They tied Golden State for 12th in overall Rebound Rate and did not finish in the top ten on either side of the ball. I consider that more of an aberration since Memphis did well rebounding in recent years but it could be worth watching because the Grizzlies need to dominate on the boards to win the series.
The Mike Conley Situation:
Mike Conley may be the most underrated starter in the NBA. He still has never made an All-Star Game despite impacting the game on both ends and being a key part of some strong teams. Unfortunately for Memphis, an errant (and accidental) elbow from C.J. McCollum in the previous series forced Conley to have surgery to repair multiple facial fractures, installing two plates in his face. While we do not know exactly how long the Grizzlies Point Guard will be out, many expect that he will return by next Saturday’s Game Three. His return will be an emotional lift but Conley also will presumably have some rust and adjustments to make so it could take some time to get back to his standard level of play.
In my eyes, it will be incredibly hard for the Grizzlies to win without Conley at his best and exceedingly difficult when he does not play at all. Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih have tried hard in his absence but the Warriors present substantially greater challenges in terms of ball movement and defense. I doubt we see Calathes drop his career high in three pointers against the Warriors as he did against Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers.
This series would look incredibly different at full strength. Beyond Conley, the Grizzlies have dealt with Tony Allen having some hamstring trouble. Memphis plays at one of the slowest paces in the league, a great strategy in this series because it reduces the number of possessions in the game. Teams at a talent disadvantage should do this more often. Golden State must take advantage of every game Mike Conley misses and I fully expect them to win Games One and Two at Oracle to maximize the opportunity. A split in Memphis would bring the series back to Oakland for a tough Game Five. Warriors in five looks to be the most likely outcome but expect tough games (like the New Orleans series) even if the duration ends up on the short side.